10 ways to impress (or turn off) an editor

Very Funny

I know editors are deeply mysterious, complicated creatures who dwell in offices that haven’t seen natural light in roughly 3,000 years. They subsist on coffee and AP Style and have been known to crush writers’ dreams merely for the pleasure of watching them snivel and gulp back tears. It’s the only way we know how to feel alive.

Sure, we start off the morning by brushing our teeth and putting on clothes. Some of us even have families. Or pretend to anyway.

But really we’re just so mysterious that it’s impossible to know how to please us—or whether we can be pleased at all, or merely prefer to sink into our well-worn office chairs and grumble at the world as it passes us by.

If you think that editors can’t be pleased then the battle’s already lost. You might as well give up on any idea of being a writer—whether recreationally or professionally—because your work is never going to be its absolute best unless you’re willing to and capable of working with an editor.

This is not to suggest that all editors are identical. Some are absolutely vile. Others are delightful creatures whose love for words and language should serve as a source of inspiration. Whatever the character of the editor in question, they—we—are a necessary evil.

So here are some tips—10 to be precise—to help ensure smooth sailing in your dealings with editors.

  1. Stick to the requested word length. I could just say “don’t write over the requested word length” because no one ever writes 500 words after you requested 1,000. They do, however, have a habit of turning over a 4,000-word article when you asked for 2,000. Often this is accompanied by a diffident suggestion that you can cut the article down to the necessary size as though the writer is giving you some special permission. What the writer hears: I love every one of these words as if they were my own children, but I’m bowing to your authority and superior editing skills by trusting you to whittle away at it. I’m secretly hoping, however, that you’ll like it so much that you’ll magically find space for it. What the editor hears: I’m an amateur who lacks self-control. I also think my time is more valuable than yours because I easily could have edited this down to size but I just didn’t bother. I also have no understanding of the space restrictions of a newspaper or print publication.
  2. Stick to the story template. It sounds minor, trivial even, to punish a writer for submitting an article in the wrong font or with two spaces between sentences or no headline at all. But when you consider that I handle roughly 25 articles per week and sometimes more, the time spent correcting these “minor” problems adds up. More importantly, it’s time taken away from evaluating the more important issues of the article, like the actual writing, fact checking, etc. And more importantly even that that, it tells me that you don’t respect minute details. In order to write well, you have to pay attention to the minutia, you have to care about every single word and every single comma. Part of you has to believe that your lead is a matter of life and death. If you don’t care about these things, and your article demonstrates that, then I won’t care about your writing, and no one else will either.
  3. Read your article before you submit it. Then read it again, preferably with a couple of hours or even days between finishing and submitting the article. I expect to find the occasional typo that a writer (reasonably) overlooked during the course of finishing a piece. Once that number begins to climb beyond two or three (depending on the length of the article), I begin to suspect that they handed the article over without bothering to check it first. Once again, this suggests that the writer in question does not pay attention to small details and that they have no respect for my time. If they respected my time as an editor, they would have wanted to save me from having to change “who” to “why” and vice versa.
  4. Meet your deadlines. If you don’t work in a newsroom with a stressed out editor reminding you of their importance, you might lapse into thinking that deadlines are insignificant, that they exist solely to give editors something to complain about. This is not the case; deadlines serve a functional purpose. They ensure that the editors have sufficient time to work their magic on an article and that the production team then has sufficient time to work their magic on your work before all of this literary magic is submitted to a printer. More importantly, perhaps, deadlines distinguish the professionals from the amateurs.
  5. Never mistake you’re and your; their, they’re, and there; and it’s and its. I’m not saying I haven’t made this mistake when my brain was exhausted and my fingers were dashing across the keyboard in a desperate effort to finish something I was tired of working on. But this is where that whole “read the article again” advice comes in handy. If you know the rules and check your work, there’s a reasonably good chance your editor won’t have to facepalm when she realizes you don’t know the difference between “it’s and “its.” And trust me, she will facepalm. She facepalms when she sees people on Facebook using “their” instead of “there” so she will expect that a would-be writer knows these basic grammatical distinctions.
  6. If you’re going to miss a deadline—and again, I wouldn’t make a habit of this, but over the course of your presumably long career as a writer, it will happen, hopefully not more than once—communicate this fact with your editor BEFORE THE PIECE IS DUE. Say your article is due Monday at 5 p.m. and you know there’s no possible way you’re going to have it polished in time. When is the appropriate time to communicate this to your editor? It is not Monday at 5 p.m. when she will inevitably be expecting it and likely have carved some time out of her schedule in order to edit it. In fact, this communication should not be made the day the article is due. Ideally, you will communicate this information to your editor several days before it is due, so that she can plan accordingly. And yes, this might mean putting the wheels in motion for a replacement piece.
  7. Never, under any circumstances, force your editor to ask you about the status of your article after the deadline has already passed. If your article is past due, you should have communicated your sincere apologies as well as an explanation to your editor well before that fact. Waiting for the editor to hunt you down after a piece is due is exceedingly bad form.
  8. Pay attention to your editor’s notes. Ideally, you and your editor will have the opportunity to collaborate on multiple rounds of revisions. When you’re editing a piece after it has been marked up by an editor, make all of the changes indicated on your draft. It’s exceedingly frustrating to find yourself, as an editor, making the same changes multiple times on the same piece. It also indicates the writer doesn’t pay attention to the details, and that they don’t respect your time.
  9. Do some homework before approaching an editor with a pitch. Make sure the newspaper or magazine in question hasn’t already run something identical or similar. Make sure you’re not writing “Dear Sir” to a managing editor named Ashley. Have your writing samples ready to go and make damn sure that if you send links they work. Don’t make a busy editor go hunting around for your writing samples. By approaching an editor from a position of knowledge and respect, you stand a much better chance of attracting the right kind of attention and even if an editor can’t accept what you happen to be pitching, there’s a good chance they’ll put you on a list for future use.

10. Remember that your editor is a human being. Everybody makes mistakes. Hell, we don’t                  always even agree on what constitutes a mistake. No matter how many words you write,                  there will always be errors, times when your brain just isn’t functioning at the level you’d                like, deadlines that feel a little too tight. But if you demonstrate that you’re a thoughtful                  writer who respects your editor’s time and wants to produce the very best possible work,                your editor will be more likely to cut you a reasonable amount of slack. All an editor wants              is respect—both for them and for yourself, because turning in sloppy work does not                            indicate that you take yourself seriously as a writer.



  1. Erin C. Messer says:

    Unless you’re in the U.K., or Gone with the Wind. Then your editor Ashley might indeed be a sir. I mean “you’re editor.” Your welcome.

  2. Loved this piece. I am going to share it with those who write for the small Magazine I write for. Take care!

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